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Narrow cobblestone alleys and ochre-colored buildings are the blueprint Stockholm is built upon. The capital city of Sweden has a rich history dating back from the Middle Ages when the Vikings first took control of this land. Although much has changed, visiting the old town of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, is like stepping back in time. As an archipelago, the many islands making up the urban region are joined together by ornate bridges and intricate pathways. While there are so many valuable sights worth visiting, the best advice one could give when traveling to Stockholm is to plan to get lost. The Stockholm Pass is one of the best ways to make sure you can access all the amazing sights you stumble upon without spending more than you have to.
The city is best understood when exploring the charming passageways with no real destination. It is when you close your map and let the cobblestone lead the way that you begin to notice the tiny details of its vibrant heritage still so very alive. The church steeples, royal palaces and market centers have vivid stories to share if you’re willing to dig a little deeper.
Arriving by train is one of the easiest ways to enter the city center. We booked a hotel close by and were able to walk to most of the sights. Luckily, we scored beautiful sunny days that meant we could spend the majority of our time outside.
We knew we wanted to head straight to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm. We made our way across numerous bridges to finally enter into Stortorget, the public market square in the center of Gamla Stan. It reminisces of an urban medieval time, but since the old town was built over a period of many years, it’s easy to see how the styles slowly shifted as you extend outwards. The towering buildings with unique architecture oversaw the bustling streets. Crowded restaurants with outdoor tables extending onto the cobblestone made for excellent people watching.
It was here that we stumbled across the Nobel Museum, full of inspiring stories of past Nobel prize winners as well as artifacts donated by Nobel Laureates. Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill were just some of the featured exhibits. Old notebooks and journals were some of my favorite things to see. An inspiring look into the world of the infamous people we hear about, but know so little about they’re lives and interests outside of the spotlight.
After absorbing all the knowledge we could, we stepped back into the market square to refresh with ice cream cones before we moved on down a narrow alley towards the notable cathedrals, no real end point in sight.
As soon as you step off the main drag, the narrow tunneling walks become secluded and picture-esque. Despite being a tourist hot spot, the intricate detail of the streets make you still feel as though you were a part of the city, rather than an outsider looking in.
When we’d had our fill of the old, we crossed back over the bridges to explore the more current regions of Stockholm. Despite being filled with high end shops and edgy restaurant, the skyline of the city maintains a look of heavenly castles from the medieval ages. It’s possible I spent most of my time looking up into the sky than actually down at what was eye-level, it was that captivating. While Stockholm is extremely walkable, the city itself is expansive. The Hop-On and Hop-Off bus (and boat!) tour is a great alternative to seeing the city in its entirety without tiring out your legs. Check out this option now for a 10% discount!
Our adventures led us to the Royal Palace, where the current residence of the Swedish Monarch. It also functions as a workplace and culture-historical monument open year round. The palace fits in with the city surrounding it, and except for the large courtyard out front, you might mistake it for an oversized city building. While there are numerous museums you can visit around the palace, we opted to watch the guards and horses marching up and down the square as onlookers stopped to make way. We waited long enough to view the changing of the guard, which include a lengthy ceremonial event once a day in the afternoon. This wasn’t the greatest event for someone of my height as I spent most of the display squished between to larger visitors, but the excitement in the air and music from the palace was interesting enough.
As we walked along the water’s edge, we stumbled upon the Stockholm Bridges Cruise that was heading out for the afternoon. Not to be one for missed opportunities, we figured we’d be able to get an overview of the city before we ventured any further. Fittingly titled since Stockholm is made up a bunch of tiny islands connected by bridges, the low-lying boat allowed us to weave in and out of the different areas. Even still, the bridges were a little too close for comfort for me so I spent most of my time on the back of the boat in order to avoid spying the incoming bridge passes. Along with Gamla Stan from water, we also got to see the islands Södermalm, Lilla and Stora Essingen, the new area Hammarby Sjöstad and the green areas of Djurgården.
Having had a quick tour of the areas from the water, we could pick and choose the sights we most wanted to revisit later on.
We spent the rest of our night on the rooftop of our hotel watching the sun go down as we prepped for tomorrow’s day. We created a loose outline our of plan and, knowing we had lots of walking ahead of us, snuck off to bed at a reasonable hour.
We had been hearing about the Vasa Museum since we first mentioned to friends and family that we were going to Stockholm. In 1628, the Vasa ship capsized and sank after only setting sail an hour or two before. As the only museum to display an only almost fully intact 17th century ship, we were eager to learn more of how a masterpiece of construction had such a doomed fate.
Located on the island of Djurgården, it’s best to get an early start to beat the lines. The walking tour of the ship is well worth it and clues you into the details you might have overlooked otherwise, such as how no ship would be able to sail with the obscenely heavy materials the builders insisted on using! In fears of giving away too much, this is the sinking ship that should no longer all in Titanic’s shadow.
With enough ship knowledge to last us the next few years, we made our way to Södermalm, stopping at Östermalms Saluhall, a farmer’s market, for a taste of Swedish produce.
Södermalm, the Brooklyn of Stockholm, is a hip and artsy neighborhood that is not only filled with vintage shops and trendy restaurants, but also is home to one the greatest viewpoints overlooking the city.
Before entering the neighborhood, we trekked up a series of stair cases, enough to brak a sweat, to reach Katarinahissen Tower just in time for the sunset. While it odes offer a glorious view of Gamla Stan, you do have to look past the abandoned bus lot directly below. But eh, you win some you lose some.
After a less than stellar viewing, we went in search of the coziest restaurant on this side of town for our last night in Sweden. When we were filled to the brim with freshly baked bread and buttery fish, we took our last stroll home, taking the long way to witness the evening crowd in Gamla Stan and take in our last views of the Royal Palace and historical cathedrals. Getting lost abroad has never felt so good!
While we were eager to explore the city on our own, I’ve heard wonderful things about the Stockholm Super Saver: Stockholm City Walking Tour Including Vasa Museum plus Bohemian Stockholm Walking Tour that truly dives into the history of this dynamic city. With access to the top museums, you really can’t go wrong!
Have you ever been to Stockholm? What’s your favorite way to see a city, by land or by water?